Why Christmas TV is so important – and always will be

Big telly moments still bring us together over the festive period, says Alison Graham

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My heart goes out to Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë in Sally Wainwright’s sombre biographical drama To Walk Invisible (Thu 29 Dec, BBC1), a particularly thoughtful cornerstone of this year’s Christmas schedules.

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Life in the Parsonage in the little town of Haworth, high up on the Yorkshire moors, is bleak and hard. The women must look after their ailing dad Patrick and wayward, alcoholic, indulged brother Branwell while writing furiously as they fulfil their brilliantly luminous destinies. Everyone cooped up, cocooned in their own little blankets of misery and, oh, this hardly bears thinking about… no telly! Life surely would be so much better if they could only cuddle up on the sofa to watch Ed Balls throwing a grown woman around a dance floor in Strictly.

In one scene Emily (Chloe Pirrie) stands on a rock in a big cape, looking sad as she contemplates her awful life. Ah, Emily, I’d do the same if I knew I’d never be able to watch Poldark. A world without Aidan Turner in a tin bath, it cannot be borne! And imagine what it must have been like at Christmas in that dour little outpost. No Doctor Who, no Call the Midwife (both Christmas Day, BBC1), just endless, listless party games including that singular form of the most cruel torture, charades.

Telly at Christmas is so important and in saying this I nod respectfully to our guest writer the Archbishop of Canterbury. I know he doesn’t think the true meaning of Christmas is a new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Witness for the Prosecution on Boxing Day on BBC1. (I do! I do!) I’ve never known a Christmas without telly, and I think I’m very lucky. Luckier, too, that my greatest worry as a child was, “What if the telly breaks down? I’ll miss A Ghost Story for Christmas.” I watched all of the great Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials with my mam and dad – how we gasped when newsreader Angela Rippon leapt to her feet to dance like a dream.

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    Strictly Come Dancing airs on Christmas Day on BBC1 at 6.45pm

And now, decades later, television still brings us together at Christmas. Yes, viewing is more diffuse and the numbers are nowhere near as huge as in Eric and Ernie’s heyday. But we still gather for the big moments, replete with turkey, as we pass around the amaretto. As a television critic, the first question anyone I’ve just met asks is, “How much television do you watch every week?” (Answer: “Too much.”) The second, around now, is, “What’s on at Christmas?” (Answer: “Go away, I’ve watched so much Christmas telly in such a short space of time for the day job that I just want to sit on the stairs and cry.”)

But ho, ho, ho, not really. This year I adore Alan Bennett’s Diaries (Christmas Eve, BBC2) and Flying Scotsman from the Footplate (Thu 29 Dec, BBC4), in their own ways two very lyrical journeys into the very heart of two entirely different aspects of Britishness. The schedules are full of University Challenge (from Mon 19 Dec, BBC2) and Mastermind (from Mon 19 Dec, BBC1) Christmas specials, the TV equivalent of a palate-cleaning sorbet amid the festive sweetness. Great for competitive families – try to beat each other to the answers before melting down in a welter of recrimination.

If you fancy a wallow in cosy, murderous nostalgia, Drama obliges under a Miss Marple at Christmas banner (Sat 17 and Sun 18 Dec). Or how about the Father Brown Christmas special (Fri 23 Dec, BBC1)? I know it’s daytime, but you’re on holiday, it’s guilt-free viewing and these perky adaptations of GK Chesterton’s stories are always good fun. Like to be scared witless at Christmas? Who doesn’t? Try the fabulous black comedy Inside No 9: the Devil of Christmas (Tue 27 Dec, BBC2) from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. And catch the repeat of the underestimated adaptation of Phil Rickman’s Midwinter of the Spirit (Fri 23 Dec, ITV Encore), with Anna Maxwell Martin as a diocesan exorcist. Then read the book.

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But, if you want really scary (and this will send a chill through the soul of any middle-aged person) try It Was Alright in the 70s (Sat 17 Dec, C4), which looks at public information films. Prepare yourself for Donald Pleasence murmuring, “I am the spirit of dark and lonely water” and the spectral cowled figure. Merry Christmas!